The nation's history and economy are entwined with 19th century railroad construction since the federal government made land available to the states for developing a cross-country railway system. Among the developers in Illinois was a hapless Civil War general, Ambrose Burnside, perhaps best remembered for his style of facial hair, for which his compatriots transposed the syllables of his last name to create the term "sideburns." In 1872, Burnside and others began the Vincennes and Cairo Railroad, named for its terminuses at Vincennes, Ind., and Cairo, Ill. In addition to passengers, the railroad transported coal, salt, wood products and orchard-grown peaches and apples.
The railroad changed hands through the years. Other operators and owners included the Wabash, St. Louis, Pacific; New York Central; Penn Central; Conrail; and , during its most productive years, the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis line, also known as the CCC & St. Louis or Big Four. The last owners were the Southern Line and, following a merger, Norfolk Southern Railroad.
In 1991, Norfolk Southern gave the State of Illinois the railroad right-of-way between Harrisburg and Karnak, where is had abandoned operations. The Department of Natural Resources has worked to develop the railroad ballast as a trail for hikers, joggers and cyclists, surfacing the trail with crushed limestone and gravel, installing privy toilets and providing drinking water. The first segments of Tunnel Hill State Trail opened in 1998. The trail was completed in the fall of 2001.